Scholarrrh interview! avec Finn Brunton

En complément du n°26 de la revue Tracés, “Pirater”, nous vous proposons une interview inédite de Finn Brunton, spécialiste de l’histoire du spam, réalisée par Jean-Christophe Plantin et Camille Paloque-Berges pour Tracés.

Finn Brunton begins his book: Spam. A Shadow History of the Internet (published by MIT Press in 2013, and Winner of the 2013 PROSE Award in Computing & Information Sciences) with a scene set at Pitcairn Island with a picturesque touch testifying of the piracy imaginary prevalent in Internet culture: a spam botnet (a type of software falling under the category of “malware”, taking over a computer network to use it for automated mass spam emailing) has taken hostage the computers of the few dozens islanders – the Pitcairn’s inhabitants, coincidentally, being themselves descendants from historical mutineers. Throughout the opus, Brunton keeps drawing from this narrative imaginary as an important component of the technological culture developed in the dark corners of the Internet. Brunton describes the spam as an important character of what he calls the “criminal infrastructure” of the Internet, along with computer viruses, network-automated scripts (“netbots”), “Evil Media” (Parikka and Sampson, 2009) and other manifestations of Internet subculture. Regarding this field of research, Tracés interviewed Jussi Parikka in 2009, one of the voices of the Media Archeology scholar and artistic movement, with whom Brunton shared the panel “Press Delete. The Politics and Performance of Spamculture”, at ISEA2010 – and Camille Paloque-Berges, who co-conducted the following interview, met them at this panel in which she participated as well.

stock-photo-virus-alert-green-ascii-skull-abstract-art-22013101Brunton is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication in the Steinhardt School at New York University. He was previously a faculty at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, an important hub for the studies of Infrastructure. Paul Edwards, a Professor at this institution, defines the Internet as an “infrastructure-in-waiting“, that is, with a tendency to be organized as a network of “robust, reliable, widely accessible systems and services that are beginning to look in form and centrality like the digital equivalents of the canonical infrastructures of telephony, electricity, and the rail network” while remaining unstable and heterogeneous in practice (Edwards et al.: 2009 : pp.365-366). Within this framework, Brunton uses the spam to study the negotiation zones between community and infrastructure, and unravels the internal oppositions and ambiguities embedded in spamming. He presents this information technology though its role in shaping Internet’s attention economy (from user behavior to community cooperation and the quantification of audiences). In addition to spam, his current research reveals him as a close observer of technological exploits, such as cryptography or the difficult art of code and data obfuscation (making a code or an dataset as difficult to read and interpret by the human eye as possible, which purposes range from the most playful to the most political – Paloque-Berges, 2009): he is currently finishing a new book on the topic with Helen Nissenbaum, a fellow professor at NYU (Brunton and Nissenbaum 2013 and 2011 will give you a foretaste of what is to come). Brunton does not only observe and decipher the dark sides of digital culture: he is also co-responsible for a prospective project on the future of network architectures endowed by the National Science Foundation (“Values in Design for Future Internet Architecture”), a problem at the forefront of Internet governance, as shown by the interview of Jean-March Manach conducted by Francesca Musiani and features in the volume of Tracés about piracy.

To celebrate the release the issue n°26 of the journal Tracés about piracy, we wanted to hear Finn Brunton’s thoughts on the topic which we thought prevalent, although implicitly, in his Shadow History of the Internet. Rightfully so, as we learned he is about to fly to the European University of St. Petersburg to attend the International Conference appropriately called “Explorers and Pirates: Digital creators and the creation of value” (organized by the Center of Science and Technology Studies on June 18-19). Jean-Christophe Plantin and Camille Paloque prepared a series of questions which were answered in one block by Finn Brunton as an “epistolary response”: you will find the questions synthesized below, followed by his reaction and development.

It must be noted that following the critical success of Spam. A Shadow History of the Internet, Finn Brunton’s words has been featured in prominent French media platforms, such as Le Monde Diplomatique and the Radio France broadcast dedicated to digital culture Place de la Toile. A French and English review of the book written by Jean-Christophe Plantin is also available on the website Inaglobal.

Questions asked by Jean-Christophe Plantin and Camille Paloque-Berges for Tracés:

The pirate as a digital culture figure

There is currently an overwhelming presence of the pirate in Internet culture. What do you think the history of digital piracy can tell about the history of Internet network itself, but also in terms of economy, politics, and society at large? Do you think it would be relevant to rethink the history of technology through the lens of piracy, as you did with spam? More precisely, the appropriation of novelesque piracy by digital pirates has a lot to do with building cultural identity within the specific context of digital networks: using pseudonyms, avatars, alias, and encryption… These identities play a lot with a dialectic of public visibility and anonymity: what do you think lays behind this movement of dissimulation of identities and re-creation of new identities? What is their role in contemporary digital culture, what do they afford? brosen

Boarding the Internet to define it

You showed that reactions to spam in early Internet communities was revealing the evolution from a niche Internet with like-minded people and wizards, to a more open Internet, including people with heterogeneous and possibly conflicting goals. Can we say the same thing about the pirate? Whereas the internet pirate used to be a hidden and unknown figure, it seems to be everywhere now, yet still as an ambivalent figure: according to their values, people might see for instance Manning either as hero or as a traitor, or Kim Dotcom either as a gangster or as a pioneer of Internet economy. Can we see the pirate as revealing the constantly evolving recreated and potentially conflicting definition of what Internet is?

From the pirate to the captain of industry

As you showed in your book, there is a subtle interaction between the new programs, laws, and algorithms to prevent spammers from doing their activity: they are obliged to constantly adapt and recreate their strategies. In a sense, it really connects with current innovation discourses such as the “permanent beta” for software development and applications, or platforms opening APIs to foster other kind of services… Is the spamming industry completely in tune with this rhythm, revealing the pace of online innovation in a sense, or can you see some differences and analogies with the spamming industry? More generally, can we see piracy as revealing evolution of online socio-economic models, as spamming does? Could we consider for instance piracy as creating alternative business models, such as accessing digital content by streaming, instead of owning online content?

Towards transnational networked spaces

You show that the history of spam can constitute an alternative history of the Internet, but also as contributing to the history of the economy of attention. It is also, and this seems also true in the case of digital (and non digital, as a matter of fact) piracy, a contribution to the history of globalization, but on the anthropological side more than the economical side. There is, on one side, the idea of disappearance of borders through network-computer communication (the Nigerian scams for instance, or the story of islands that are both spam relays and pirate ships), but on the other side, spam and piracy highlight what is left aside from the utopia of progress inscribed in global telecommunication, such as trickery, derouting, makeshift inventiveness, a sense of play (from Nigerian scams to their counterparts, spam-baiters and back). And we know, thanks to the history of colonialism, that globalization was also the exchange of tricks (your precious metal for my trinkets) in order to gain power over the other (under the pretense of “civilizing”). Would you agree with saying that spam and piracy can reveal both the utopian and dystopian side of online communication networks?

Finn Brunton: I think I see a theme — a bit of conductive thread that binds pirates, spammers, hackers, and others together in the history of the network (and globalization more generally): the concept of the outsider, and the outside. Outside of what, precisely? Physically outside of borders, juridically outside of laws, technically outside of the use cases, design specifications, and performance envelopes, and, of course, outside the story, the tale of how the system came to be, the discourse.

advwritemAbout midway through writing my book I read Adrian Johns’ marvelous Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, and recognized a parallel construction. One of the arguments of my book is that spam functioned in a very concrete way as an antithesis against which acceptable uses were developed. “Spam” as a concept had to be defined, described and applied, meaning that it acted as a negotiation space where different groups worked out who was in charge of networked computing and how their governance was manifested and enforced — in a larger sense, what the network was for. And, of course, where those relationships were re-negotiated as well: people and nations, people and companies, people and their communities, people and algorithms and filtering systems … Likewise, what Johns chronicles are the ways in which intellectual property piracy often precedes copyright as we know it — that copyright is the development of a society “forced to articulate and defend those ideals [of authorship, creativity, and reception], and sometimes to adjust or abandon them.” (And the history Johns chronicles, much like the history of spam and anti-spam, turns in many ways on questions of “courtesies” and “propriety,” as well as property and technology.)

Without overstating it, there’s something very interesting about how constitutive these figures often are: how they, in their malfeasance and misbehavior, find out (by exploit!) what is deeply new, deeply complex, deeply transformative about a technology — what there is to be reckoned with. Spammers act on understandings about how human attention is collected and aggregated and captured on networked computers, about the gaps and shear between prior models of advertising and new platforms for circulation. Pirates — well, let’s go old, with pirates, to an observation Johns makes about the movement of early modern books and these initial questions of copyright, ownership, authenticity: that piracy is a property not just of objects but of objects in space, and a book that is legitimate in one place can travel a day or a week in a bag or the hold of a ship and suddenly be illegitimate. Authentic in one place, piratic in the next, and making no difference to its reader! The properties of piracy affect the printed book not a whit — it is, after all, a mass-produced object, an exemplary assembly line output. That’s a deep thing about the movement of knowledge in books (to do with public spheres and publics, cosmopolitanism, authorship, the universal reproducibility of scientific experiments, profession of religion, the role of borders) and the pirates were there with a shoulder pushed against the limits of that meaning.

This, in my analysis, is what makes spammers, pirates, and so on, distinct figures from other classes of digital criminality: they are, for better or worse, doing something novel and exploratory with the technology, figuring out how to take advantage of its new affordances and capacities. Drug dealers — the “Dread Pirate Roberts” and his acolytes — are by and large doing quite an old-fashioned thing, as are many forms of identity thieves, extortionists and standover men, blackmailers, digital money laundries, prostitutes and pimps and pornographers, bookies … this is all classic business, just done with the aid of DDoS attacks, classified-ad sites, postal dead drops, and online currencies. There is much of interest there, of course, to the researcher! But pirates, spammers, black hat hackers, trolls, “revenge porn” perpetrators and magnates — these and others, with widely varying degrees of malignity, are exploiting properties of systems that can advance our ascii_art_et_spam_01understanding of what those systems can do and what they can mean. Of course they aren’t wholly novel — after all, what Johns and others describe is piracy as a multi-century narrative, and within spam’s innovative infrastructure are some of the most old-school of old-school moves, from begging letters to quack medicine to advance fee fraud letters, which go back at least as far as the French Revolution (as I’ve written about elsewhere). However, there is a kernel of significant innovation there, which I’ll return to at the end of this letter.

We could go still earlier, if we liked, to the para-mythic genesis of Hellenic city states in Thucydides: the walled cities, the control of the sea, the occupation of the isthmuses — all reactions to the prevalence of piracy. It is in the work of managing the seagoing criminal class that consolidation happens, commerce and trade are protected, and soon the Athenians can put aside wearing weapons every day (“as with the barbarians”) and develop the glory that (et cetera) and the grandeur that (and so on and so forth) but the pirates were there, present at the creation, the inciting incident.

But of course that origin story misses the most interesting thing about pirates (and spammers, in many ways), which is their blurry closeness with legitimacy. The history of spamming is partially the history of “legitimate” advertisers, in particular direct mail industry groups, interfering with anti-spam legislation and enforcement lest it set a precedent against the kinds of unrequested, indiscriminate advertising that they produced. Contemporary pirates are marvelously good at the business of actually distributing movies, music, books, and television efficiently around the world: DRM-free, with a variety of dubbing and subtitles and nice clean metadata, uploaded with the agreements struck within “The Scene” about codecs and acceptable quality, moved by BitTorrent and file lockers, via seedboxes and aggregator sites. It’s a thing of beauty, and would be the envy of any distribution business … were it not also, of course, illegal. Pirates, old yo-ho-ho pirates, were often oscillating between roles, since they got so much of the dirty work of maritime colonization and low-intensity warfare and raiding done. Consider Henry Morgan, a personal favorite of mine, looting the Spanish Main, a wanted man one year and knighted shortly after — by the same country! From the headsman’s axe to the ceremonial sword, not bad for a buccaneer.

ASCIIspamWhich brings me to a final point. The fundamental tension that underlies and unites these technological and geopolitical outsiders is not between legitimacy and illegitimacy — it’s between this borderline state I’ve just described, and a state that we might call something like the “absolute outside.” (I’m sure there’s a better term for this.) The absolute outside is the place that does not merely provide some dialectical alternative to existing arrangements, but is predicated on the meaninglessness of what underlies them. The pirate — yo-ho-ho, bottle-of-rum pirate — is a powerful, terrifying figure because the work from the “outside” of the ocean, where they fly under the flag of no nation (or false flags), change identities as they please, mix races and classes, profess Christianity and Islam and no religion at all, do not abide by treaties or rules of property or the rules of war … They are hostis humani generis, the enemies of all mankind, and they produce extraordinary legal measures — “extraordinary” in the sense of “extraordinary rendition” — to fight them. This is not to valorize pirates, but simply to clarify how they threaten: they are not a nation threatening another nation, but rather threaten the very concept of nation (which is why the doctrine of hostis humani generis is that any nation may hold the trial and execution of any pirate, regardless of whether their ships have been menaced — a universal jurisdiction for a threat to the authority on which any jurisdiction rests). They oscillate between being recuperable into legitimacy as freebooters and buccaneers, and representing this absolute outside. Likewise spammers, I would argue, are at once quotidian, but move in the direction of a very different kind of absolute outside, where the production of text largely has nothing to do with humans at all; it is the production of machines for machines, with any effect on humans a second or third-order effect. Text as commodified, statistically managed data, algorithmically generated and filtered, with all the properties particular to data — that’s something enormously interesting and productive to think with; a new order is latent there. It has as little to do with “writing” and “reading” as gigapixel images fed into processing and analysis systems have to do with human vision, yet there’s a relationship there. Finally, pirates, our modern pirates, brush against the surface of profoundly different, almost unrecognizable, concepts of ownership, intellectual property, authorship, sharing and circulation — as well as projecting encrypted, placeless mesh networks, functioning like torrents, like Bitcloud, like steganography…

Keep your eyes open, in other words, for the black flags of these groups on the horizon — because they show us where the horizon lies, and where the outside awaits to be researched and explored.

About the images 

The illustrations are ASCII art (textual images made out from American Standard Code for Information Interchange, a default code for writing text on the early computer networks), taken from :
– hacker groups’ heraldry deployed on the Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) scene, an early network community where the imaginary of digital piracy took form (source : “BBS textfiles”);
– spammers’s tactics for spreading unwanted ads through mails across the spam filters (source : “ASCII Art Spam: Puppy Edition” ; “Spam : Ascii Art et Spam”);
– stock photography for virus alerts inspired by the same imaginary (source: “Virus Alert Green Ascii Skull Abstract Art”).


Brunton Finn et Nissenbaum Helen, 2011, « Vernacular resistance to data collection and analysis : a political theory of obfuscation » [en ligne], First Monday, vol. 16, n° 5 [URL:], consulté le 24 juin 2014.

—, 2013, « Political and ethical perspectives on data obfuscation », Privacy, Due Process and the Computational Turn, Mireille Hildebrandt et Katje de Vries éd., New York, Routledge, p. 164-188.

Edwards Paul N., Bowker Geoffrey C., Jackson Steven J., Williams Robin, 2009, « Introduction : an agenda for infrastructure studies », Journal of the Association for Information Systems, vol. 10, n° 5, p. 364-374.

Johns Adrian, 2010, Piracy : The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Paloque-Berges Camille, 2009, Poétique des codes sur le réseau informatique, Paris, Archives contemporaines

Parikka Jussi et Sampson Tony D., 2009, The Spam Book. On Viruses, Porn and Other Anomalies from the Dark Side of Digital Culture, Cresskill, Hampton Press.

Citer ce billet
samu3lhayat (2014, 25 juin). Scholarrrh interview! avec Finn Brunton. Tracés. Revue de sciences humaines. Consulté le 22 avril 2024, à l’adresse

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1 réponse

  1. 02/09/2014

    […] I had the pleasure to co-interview Finn Brunton with Camille Paloque-Berges for the #special issue of the journal Tracés, about Piracy. It was a delightful experience to work with these two great people, I hope you will enjoy it. Below is the introduction of the interview, the rest is available on the journal blog. […]

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